Time to decommission Question Time
With Baroness Sayeeda Warsi mired in controversy we may be mercifully spared her regular TV appearances on BBC’s Question Time. She has, after all, been on so often recently that you could be forgiven for thinking that she had started to co-host the show with David Dimbleby.
Warsi, to be frank is a bit dopey and unelected, yet the Conservative party seems to have no qualms about her regularly appearing on it’s behalf on one of the mainstream media’s ‘flagship’ politics programmes. Why?
I suspect that the Tories care little about Question Time these days. It’s an increasingly tired TV format and doesn’t look fit for purpose in today’s political climate. That’s how I feel about it anyway. Put simply: it’s boring.
I didn’t always feel this way. When I first started watching as a politically curious teenager back in the 1980s, it was must-see-TV. I used to watch with my Dad, a working class Tory in the mould of Alf Garnet! Still, it was watching Question Time that I was introduced to socialism by Tony Benn.
I remember Benn asked very simply: what kind of society do you want to live in? Then he briefly painted a picture of Thatcher’s Britain, which corresponded with my own experience as an unemployed teenager, and contrasted it to a democratic socialist society, which sounded like something to aspire to.
I wonder does anyone ever feel particularly inspired or moved watching Question Time these days? Or do they just feel irritated and patronised.
It seems to me that Question Time faces a similar predicament to another great and now deceased BBC institution – Top of the Pops, which went through the agony of various revamps and face-lifts before it was put to rest.
Top of the Pops was decommissioned because the ever increasing competition from multimedia and niche musical outlets meant it no longer occupied the predominant role it once had. In essence, the show depended upon a consensus around what mattered in pop music, and in particular the centrality of an official chart, which no longer exists. In short, the context within which Top of the Pops existed changed and the show floundered in the new environment.
Question Time belongs to an era when a national political debate could be largely represented by a small number of parties, all of whom had parliamentary representation. But the consensus around the legitimacy of parliamentary politics and faith in its effectiveness has begun to disintegrate. It has been undermined by a perceived loss of sovereignty; voter apathy; the growth of political parties and organisations of both Left and Right who aren’t in the mainstream but articulate ideas that are too prevalent to ignore.
Enlarging the panel on Question Time hasn’t helped and in some ways only exposes the formats problems all the more. Look at the guests on a typical show. The government is effectively represented by two representatives – one Lib-Dem, the other Conservative; a Labour MP, a journalist (usually from the Right – after all the UK’s press is predominantly of that political complexion); and someone from the world of entertainment as a sop to the young people.
If you were an alien, visiting modern Britain, and your first encounter with politics was Question Time, you’d assume that everyone in the UK was a celebrity obsessed Right-winger… or a Daily Mail reader, which is same thing really.
I’m happy to concede that maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s my age. Maybe I’ve just out grown Question Time. Maybe it was always a bit crap and I was too young to notice. Maybe I’m entirely unrepresentative of public opinion and everybody else thinks that Question Time is an integral part of our political process and a paragon of public service broadcasting. But my hunch is that there are a lot of us watching the show who experience a curious disconnect between the world as we experience it and the way it is discussed by Question Time guests.